The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jun 07, 2012

Generation next in Akron

Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller

Three of Akron’s most engaged young leaders talk about how and why they work for the greater good.  It's part of an article that looks at how Knight is helping develop the next generation of leadership in Akron.

Kyle Kutuchief, 33, is the director of development at the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron. He is a board member of several civic groups, including the Knight-backed Torchbearers Akron.

Knight Foundation: What’s your favorite thing about living in Akron?

Kyle Kutuchief: I love Akron ... my personal and professional networks are here. I grew up in a community on the west side called Bath. My parents were guidance school counselors. There’s such a strong sense of community here, that’s what keeps me here. People know each other, when you call someone, they call you back. People here genuinely care about the community. In other cities it can be less personal, but Akron is a very relationship-driven place. It’s a city, but it feels like a town.

You’ve said you like the city’s cultural assets: Which ones?

K.K.: A lot of people don’t know it, but we have one of the country’s best national parks systems. I’m a runner so I love that I get to explore Cuyahoga Valley. There are also great new restaurants that makes it easier to carbo-load before marathons. I’m a hobby photographer so I really appreciate our local emerging and indy art scene.

How is the community getting stronger?

K.K.: Akron is lucky … we have an established leadership that is committed to helping us realize a better future.  Akron also has a strong civic leadership, including a good mayor, superintendent, and a strong county executive. We also have other assets like a great university program and healthcare facilities, so I think we have fared better than other communities in the region.

What can Akron do to attract the next generation of talent?

K.K: We face a challenge, a lot of outsiders see Akron as uneventful or boring. But there are a lot of exciting things going on here and we need to share them! We should better market our community … we need to give companies, non-profits and other institutions in the area better tools to market those opportunities so that when they go out and recruit for talent, they’re better equipped.  We have assets that are on par with other communities. It’s really up to us to build our confidence in how we talk about them.

What do you love about your job?

K.K: The Austen BioInnovation Institute is a great example of collaboration that exemplifies what is possible when leaders come together around a shared strategic vision … our collaborative goal of reinventing our local economy. I consider myself lucky to be part of the effort to help rebrand Akron as a city of medical research, innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s really exciting.
Eric Johnson, the executive director of the University Park Alliance, is tasked with helping lead Akron’s urban economic redevelopment efforts.  

You’re not from Akron, but you’ve been at the University Park Alliance for almost two years. What brought you here?

E.J.: A lot of people have written Akron off, which is a shame. It’s a close-knit, peaceful community. It has all the pieces in place to become successful economically. Civic engagement is essential to the goal of community transformation and we have that opportunity here. I am here because I believe Akron can one day serve as a model for traditional American cities that are looking to build prosperous futures. I saw something in Akron’s civic leaders who are leading the economic revitalization; the community has the ability to develop a new economic base that is global.

Tell us about some exciting projects or programs that are taking place at the alliance.

E.J.: On June 16, the  University Park Alliance is holding a neighborhood summit in partnership with AmericaSpeaks … a chance for hundreds of people to discuss what issues matter to them and to define priorities for the neighborhood moving forward. Our sold-out Urban Innovators Speaker Series brought in leaders to discuss issues in progressive urban design that we think are crucial to attracting talent and helping bring economic development to the region.

What are some of the top issues you hear about?

E.J.: Affordable housing, perceived crime and transportation are some … We’re implementing a five-year strategic plan that focuses our efforts on four programmatic areas: real estate development, economic development, social and human capital development and community/civic engagement development.

Are there challenges in making that plan happen?

E.J.:  We’re faced with the question of who is going to take over leadership efforts for the next generation. We are a community based on civic engagement, economic development and human capital. That’s where we will draw the energy from to become a strong, thriving city. … It’s up to the local community and its leaders – both established and emerging - to help set a new course.

Suzie Graham, 39, is the executive director at the Downtown Akron Partnership, which is helping build a clean, safe and vibrant downtown.

Knight Foundation: What's unique about Akron?

Suzie Graham: A commuter can get from one end of the city to the other in less than 20 minutes … We actually wave and say hello on the street.  We experience all four seasons and get enjoy them in an extensive park system. Our community reflects the best attributes of our rubber heritage as we evolve from tire manufacturing to state of the art polymers and airships. We're flexible, we're resilient, we float and we bounce back.

How do cultural programs like First Night Akron, Downtown Art Works and the Lock Summer Series help?

S.G: Our mission is to promote and build the community that lives at the heart of our city. Downtown is very much the core of the community, it’s the keeper of our civic, arts, social services and medical anchors and it’s the central social gathering place ... a safe, walkable, social and welcoming neighborhood. Our cultural programming is designed specifically to highlight the successful arts, culture and entertainment venues and share the enormous talents in our city and the region.

What are key to the success of Akron's future?

S.G: The same core principles that have defined successes of our past: collaboration, resourcefulness, flexibility and a can-do entrepreneurial spirit celebrated through hard working people. Our strong and dedicated workforce … the public school system, strong residential neighborhoods, public green and gathering spaces.

How can the community best address its challenges?

S.G: We are our best selves when we communicate openly with a sincere desire to
share our talents, with the best interests of others at heart and clear set goals in mind.

Could you imagine living any place else?

S.G: Sure, but there's no place like home.

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